Blood + Madness: Carrie and The Descent as Sister Films
I don't remember the first time I saw The Descent (and I feel as if I should, since it's now a favorite), but I do remember the feeling that lingered afterwards: a kind of sickly discomfort with the narrative, and a healthy respect for Neil Marshall's direction. Over the years it's become one of my favorite horror films; a film that, I think, really speaks to the possibilities of the genre. I've also come to appreciate the ways in which Marshall's film references Brian DePalma's 1976 film Carrie. Marshall uses specific visual cues from DePalma's film to give viewers hints as to the true nature of Sarah's experience in the cave, and I believe watching The Descent with Carrie in mind adds a richness and depth to what is already a great horror film.
If you're not familiar with Carrie (shame on you if you aren't - queue that up on Netflix NOW!), here's a quick run-down. In Brian DePalma's coming of age film, Sissy Spacek plays a teenage girl growing up beneath the tyrannical thumb of her overbearing, fanatically religious mother. Along the way, she discovers that she has telekinetic powers. While Carrie's always been an outcast at school, things take a turn for the worse when she gets her period during gym class and is mercilessly teased by classmates.
From this moment forward, blood serves as a central theme of the film and becomes a symbol of monstrous transformation. Later in the film, when Carrie is doused with buckets of pig's blood as a prank, she changes from a meek girl into a woman of terrifying and unstoppable power. Carrie loses whatever control she had of her telekinetic powers, and destroys everyone unfortunate enough to be in her path. Carrie's narrative arc begins with blood marking the beginning of her womanhood, and ends in blood as she destroys her classmates, mother, and ultimately herself.
Similarly, in The Descent we meet Sarah, a woman overcome by grief after the death of her husband and young daughter in a horrifying (and dude, I mean HOR-RI-FY-ING) automobile accident. The main part of the film picks up about a year after the accident, and follows Sarah as she meets up with her adventurous friends to go explore a network of caves in the Appalachian Mountains. These are her ride or die girls (well, mostly die), and they plan the trip as a way to get things back to the way they used to be, and to help cheer Sarah's spirits.
Dark caves and small spaces are no place for a woman as mentally unstable as Sarah. Marshall is very careful to let us know Sarah's mental health is on shaky ground with two memorable moments. The first is when Sarah hallucinates a large pole being driven through her head/brain, a scene which not only recalls the fate of her husband, but also gives viewers a clue to the nature of her continued suffering. Almost directly after that sequence, she's shown taking prescription pills, which we are implied to be for her mental health.
The next day, the women set off exploring, entering a huge, scary as shit cave system. As the women begin their journey, the path that the group had planned to use to get in and out of the caves collapses, closing off their exit and forcing the women to move deeper into the system to (hopefully) find another way out. Unfortunately, it is Sarah who finds herself trapped just as the narrow passage is collapsing. It's at this point that I believe Sarah's mind breaks for good. She panics. We can hear her struggling to breathe. The other women rally together to pull her out, managing to do so just seconds before the entire passageway crumbles. It's not too long after this pivotal scene that we are given a hint of the first dweller.
As the film surges forward, and our group of explorers move deeper into the cave, Marshall borrows some wonderfully powerful imagery from DePalma's film to create a resonance between his film and DePalma's. The use of these images leads me to believe that we are meant to read The Descent as a sister film to Carrie, and to understand Sarah's journey in the context of Carrie's. Carrie is the story of a woman who has a mental breakdown and destroys everything in her path and The Descent plays with similar ideas of madness and destruction.
One of these moments of borrowed imagery happens after Sarah falls into a pool of blood. As she emerges from the pool, Marshall gives us a close up shot of her eyes. I've written before about the "aura" of images, and how familiar ones can resonate with viewers on a subconscious level. This is another perfect example - the iconic image of Carrie's wide blue eyes is something that many horror fans are familiar with, and choosing actress Shauna MacDonald, who looks very similar to actress Sissy Spacek is, in my opinion, intentional on Marshall's part.
From here, Sarah's demeanor changes. She becomes fearless, a warrior, a monster. Just as in Carrie, it seems that blood has become an agent of transformation. Continuing to stand in the pool, Sarah stares wide-eyed, twitching uncontrollably, then screams, and something odd happens. The camera immediately cuts from the shot of Sarah screaming, to the remaining women who are hiding in another part of the cave's system. When the camera is trained on Sarah, we hear the scream in Sarah's voice. But when the camera cuts to the other women, we hear the scream of a Dweller. However - and this is important - that sound is treated as one, continuous scream. It's not too long after this moment that Sarah destroys Juno in a fit of rage. Just as in Carrie, blood and madness have merged, and transformed our once meek protagonist into someone with the same bloodlust as the creatures pursuing her.
Another nod to Carrie takes place at the end of the film when Sarah emerges from beneath the earth. Marshall gives us another shot that hearkens back to the end of DePalma's film, as both womens' bloodied hands emerge from underground.
These are just a few examples of how the two films compliment one another, but I'm sure there are more. Marshall's references to images from Carrie allows us to watch The Descent with a greater understanding of Sarah's narrative arc, and her transformation into someone who is highly unstable and even dangerous. So next time you're tempted to watch one film or the other, make it a double feature!